January 2019
The road trip Holden Caulfield never took

Book Cover: Why We Took the Car
Cover © Andersen Press

Since its publication in 1951, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye has become a staple of teen literature. Holden Caulfield’s account of his impulsive journey to New York one December captures a particularly teenage sense of alienation and loss, and the novel defined what would become YA literature for generations.

Wolfgang Herrndorf’s Why We Took the Car (tr. Tim Mohr) could almost offer a contemporary re-imagining of The Catcher in the Rye; like Holden, 14-year-old Mike Klingenberg is looking back on an unexpected journey sparked by loneliness and frustration. The novel made waves upon its publication in Germany in 2010, scooping a number of literary prizes and prompting a film adaptation (entitled Goodbye, Berlin) which was released in 2016.

The story starts with the onset of the summer holidays. Mike’s mother is off to the “beauty farm”, a rehab facility, and his father leaves for a spurious business trip, his arm around his young secretary’s waist. Mike is left to fend for himself in their fancy but unloving home – and he’s not even invited to Tatiana’s birthday party, which his whole class has been looking forward to for weeks. Lonely, frustrated and bored, Mike isn’t exactly impressed when his Russian classmate Tschick turns up at his house, but the boys forge a tentative friendship, and after deciding to “go on vacation like normal people” they set off on a road trip through Germany in a stolen Lada. Along the way they’re taken in by strangers (emphasis on the “strange”), join forces with fellow runaway Isa and have a number of increasingly close brushes with the police.

Mike definitely has a touch of Holden’s cynicism about him (“The more I thought about these old folks who kept climbing out of the buses, the more depressed I got.”), but while the pace of The Catcher in the Rye is dictated by Holden’s own spikes and crashes of energy, Why We Took the Car is rather more high-octane, and is enlivened by much more laughter and genuine connection. This is partly due to the friendship between Mike and Tschick, which builds from indifference through frustration to an unswerving loyalty – but it also stems from the boys’ surprising encounters along the way:

“Ever since I was a little boy my father had told me the world was a bad place. The world is bad and people are bad. Don’t trust anyone, don’t talk to strangers, all of that. … And maybe it was true, maybe ninety-nine percent of people were bad. But the strange thing was that on this trip, Tschick and I had run into almost only people from the one percent who weren’t bad. … I was so surprised by it that all I could do was stutter.”

Friendship, crushes and adventure: Why We Took the Car has all the right ingredients for a perfect coming of age story. But it’s also just a great read for anyone (young or old) who, perhaps like Holden, is looking for warmth, laughter and escape in the midst of a dreary winter.

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